A language is more than just words. I can speak a few words in a few languages, but not enough to get by. Sometimes, it seems we share a language and still miss something in communication. Other days, I’m not sure I’m even fluent in my native language…
A friend of mine (from Sweden) said she was reading something British and she didn’t quite get it until she remembered it was British. After that, it was funny. She reminded me it wasn’t enough to read the words, but stories also can require a switch in mindset. Since my friend has lived in both Britain and America, it explains how she might identify it differently.
She also recommends translations of a few books from Swedish authors. Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell are the ones I’ve read so far, and both of them write intricately-plotted crime fiction. Many of the comments I’ve heard about it before and after I read it is that it takes 50-100 pages to get into the story, to be truly hooked. I felt that was accurate, though the second and third books by Larsson did not have the trouble because they followed after the setup of the first.
I know a couple people who don’t want to wait that long. I’ve heard of editors and agents who want to know by the first five pages, by the first paragraph.
What I really wonder is what that says about us, that we aren’t willing to give it a few pages. Does it say something if you read the last page first, if you skim through the book and then read it over in detail, or if you carefully devour everything on the page. Or is it something more about how short life is, that we want to jump into something that immediately takes us away.
Then it leads me to wonder if our work, translated, meets the same resistance when it travels over to someone else. If they need to switch to a part of the brain where they understand it, or if the translator doesn’t manage to change the ideas from what we intended to something that makes sense in that culture.
When I look at my work again, I start wondering about creating new languages. Y’know, because I’m always thinking about space adventures and aliens and I swear one day I’m going to finish that world I’ve created and the story that’s just beyond me at the moment. Those translations remind me that it isn’t just about figuring out the character’s mind, but also in making sure the reader sees it as well as I do.